Today in Literary History – August 24, 1872 – Max Beerbohm, novelist, essayist, critic, dandy, known as “The Incomperable Max” is born

Max Beerbohm (or to give him his full handle, Sir Henry Maximilian Beerbohm) was born in London on August 24, 1872.

He became well known early in his life as a dandy and a bon vivant. He was closely associated with Oscar Wilde’s circle. He was a good friend of the artist and writer Aubrey Beardsley. He was also an accomplished caricaturist who signing his drawings as simply “Max”.

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He went on to be a respected drama critic, an essayist on both serious and humorous subjects, a parodist, and a popular radio broadcaster.

He wrote many short stories, but only one novel, Zuleika Dobson, a satire of undergraduate life at Oxford University published in 1911, which is still read today.

He also wrote dozens of highly entertaining and perceptive essays that are held in high regard for their style and wit.

.Beerbohm was widely known in his day as “The Incomparable Max” (a title given to him by George Bernard Shaw) for his good nature and his literary versatility.

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A Beerbohm self-caricature from 1897

Beerbohm himself wrote that:

“I am inclined to think, indeed I have always thought, that a young man who desires to know all that in all ages and in all lands has been thought by the best minds, and wishes to make a synthesis of all those thoughts for the future benefit of mankind is setting himself up for a very miserable old age.”

A new collection of Beerbohm’s essays is cheekily titled The Prince of Minor Writers. I take exception with that. His essays are vibrant and stylish no matter what they are about. The enormity of the essays subjects shouldn’t dictate their artistry.

As one critic said, “Throughout his long life, he remained, resolutely, a miniaturist. He wrote small pieces about small things, but each was so carefully and wonderfully wrought”

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Beerbohm’s caricature of Oscar Wilde

Beerbohm came from a prosperous London family. His father was a wealthy Lithuanian-born grain merchant. People often assumed that Beerbohm was Jewish but Beerbohm himself always said that he came from Protestant stock. He married twice, both times to Jewish women. Both times too, it seems, the marriages were not consummated.

There has been a murmuring over the years that Max might have been doubly closeted – as a gay man and as the son of a Jewish family “passing” as goyim.

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In the end it doesn’t really matter. He left behind a large body of “minor” writing that is a joy to read. As the Chilean novelist, and Beerbohm fan, Roberto Bolaño wrote, “The great Max Beerbohm may be the paradigm of the minor writer and the happy man. In other words: Max Beerbohm was a good and gracious soul.”

Max Beerbohm died in Rapallo, Italy in 1956 at the age of 83.

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